Archived Mountain Voices

Overlooks are special places in the southern mountains

George Ellison. George Ellison.

High-elevation overlooks are one of our finest natural resources. These vantage points allow us to rise above our everyday humdrum existence and see the world with fresh eyes. Many of the finest overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the Great Smokies, and elsewhere can be reached directly via motor vehicles. 

Instant access is just fine when we don't have a lot of time to devote to getting there. But it always adds a bit of resonance to the experience if we have to walk a ways before reaching our destination. It doesn't have to be a long walk. Many of the most satisfying overlooks require relatively little time or effort to reach. Two of my favorites through the years have been Pickens Nose and Salt Rock.

Pickens Nose is located at the southern end of the Nantahala Mountains within the Nantahala National Forest. From the backcountry information center at the Standing Indian Campground, continue on FR-67 along the headwaters of the Nantahala River. Eight miles from the information center this maintained road passes through Mooney Gap where the Appalachian Trail (marked with white blazes) makes a crossing. Continue another 0.7 mile along FR-67 to the trailhead for Pickens Nose, which is situated in a gap at 4,680-feet.

The trail leads south along the crest of a ridge through a rhododendron tunnel. At about a half mile there is a side trail leading a few yards to the east (left) to a small outcrop providing a view out over the Coweeta Creek watershed and the Little Tennessee River Valley to the Balsam Mountain Range. You can spot Highlands in the distance.

At 0.7 miles you reach Pickens Nose at 4,900 feet, a sloping, multi-level granite outcrop on the southwest end of the ridge. It’s maybe 45-feet long and 20-feet wide. The vertical drop of the rock face is 50 or so feet, while the almost sheer descent into the Bettys Creek valley below is 2,230 feet.

The views west and north are into the high Nantahalas. Standing Indian looms at 5,499-feet due west. It’s four miles away but seems as if you could reach out and touch it. To the east the Balsams swing back in an arc toward the Smokies. And to the south you will look out over an endless blue expanse of mountains into Georgia and the upper headwaters of the Savannah. Here you are on the edge of the contorted Appalachian drainage system, with waters flowing on the one hand directly to the Atlantic and on the other through the vast heartland of the nation to the Gulf of Mexico.

Why Pickens Nose? In profile the outcrop resembles a huge nose.

All the evidence indicates that it was so-named in honor of Gen. Andrew Pickens of South Carolina, a soldier in the Revolutionary War who subsequently initiated prohibited sales of Cherokee lands during the 1780s and helped lay out Indian boundary lines during the 1790s.

Salt Rock is located in Panthertown Valley, which is administered by the Highlands Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest. Inquire at the Highlands Ranger District office regarding trail maps and additional information. 

To reach Salt Rock turn east (towards Brevard) at the crossroads in Cashiers on U.S. 64 and proceed 1.8 miles before turning left onto Cedar Creek Road. At 2.1 miles, turn right onto Breedlove Road and proceed 3.3 miles to the gated trailhead. A short walk down the roadway and around the first bend leads to Salt Rock, one of the most delightful overlooks in the southern highlands.

From this vantage point on the southwest rim of the Panthertown watershed (headwaters of the Tucksegee River) a series of extensive rock outcrops that rise from 200 to 300 feet above the valley can be observed. The broad valley floor and almost vertical rock-face terrain has led some to describe the area as “The Yosemite of the East.” Retired Western Carolina University biologist Dan Pittillo has observed that Panthertown Valley resembles what the Yosemite Valley of California “might look like following several million years of erosion.”

It’s a region of flat, meandering tannin-darkened streams often bordered by white sand banks, extensive waterfall systems that form grottoes in which rare ferns reside, large pools several hundred feet in length, high country bogs and seeps that harbor vegetation not often encountered elsewhere in the mountains, upland “hanging” valleys on the sides of the tract, and rocky outcrops where ravens nest.

Editor’s note: This George Ellison article first appeared in an August 2010 edition of The Smoky Mountain News

(George Ellison is a writer and naturalist who lives in Bryson City. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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